An anthology series centering on different characters and locations, including a house with a murderous past, an insane asylum, a witch coven, a freak show circus, a haunted hotel, a possess... Read allAn anthology series centering on different characters and locations, including a house with a murderous past, an insane asylum, a witch coven, a freak show circus, a haunted hotel, a possessed farmhouse, a cult, the apocalypse, a slasher summer camp, and a bleak beach town and de... Read allAn anthology series centering on different characters and locations, including a house with a murderous past, an insane asylum, a witch coven, a freak show circus, a haunted hotel, a possessed farmhouse, a cult, the apocalypse, a slasher summer camp, and a bleak beach town and desert valley.
The Return of Macaulay Culkin
LA, 1984. Montana (Billie Lourd), a fiery devil-may-care extrovert; Xavier (a superb Cody Fern), a self-serious aspiring actor; Chet (Gus Kenworthy), a professional athlete who has been suspended from Team USA for the 1984 Olympics after failing a drug test; and Ray (DeRon Horton), a friendly man with a troubling secret, are heading to work as counsellors at a newly reopened summer camp called Camp Redwood. They ask their new friend Brooke (Emma Roberts) to join them, but she declines. However, that night, she's attacked by Richard Ramirez, aka the Night Stalker (a brilliant Zach Villa). She fends him off, but the incident convinces her to join the others. At Redwood, they meet Margaret (an exceptional Leslie Grossman), who survived a massacre there in 1970 and now owns the camp; Rita (Angelica Ross), the nurse; Bertie (Tara Karsian), the chef; and Trevor (a hilarious Matthew Morrison), the activities director. Meanwhile, Benjamin Richter, aka Mr Jingles (a scene-stealing John Carroll Lynch), the former groundskeeper at Redwood and perpetrator of the 1970 massacre, escapes from a nearby mental facility and heads to the camp.
The first thing you'll notice about 1984 is how immersed it is in slasher movie references and tropes, with a particular preference for Halloween (1978) and, especially, Friday the 13th (1980), both of which are referenced throughout the nine episodes. Not quite a post-modernist reimagining of the genre, the season could stand as a respectable slasher story in its own right, and in this sense, the tone is absolutely pitch-perfect. Take the opening credits. Whereas previous AHS sequences are usually unnerving, the opening to 1984 is a thing of tacky '80s beauty - shot on VHS in 1.33:1 (the recording even has some visible tracking lines from time to time), the pastel-infused credits are made up of shots of aerobics, tape decks, gaudy fashion, dodgy '80s video graphics, VCRs, Ronald Reagan, and roller skates. Meanwhile, the unsettling AHS theme music is here reproduced on a synth. It's horrible, cheesy, about as unthreatening as you can imagine, and awesome.
The show goes on to hit classic genre markers such the campfire scene used to provide heavy exposition, the clichéd chase scene where the girl being pursued keeps tripping and falling over, the characters continually splitting up for various (dubious) reasons, and the plethora of pseudo-POV shots from behind trees.
Having said all that, however, there are certainly elements of postmodern-esque deconstruction at play; the girl with the huge breasts becomes the guy with the huge penis, the black characters survive beyond the opening act, the quintessential shower scene upon which someone is spying involves not women but men, and there's a fascinating pseudo-meta defamiliarisation of the clichéd notion that despite being flesh and blood humans, serial killers in slasher films are notoriously difficult to kill.
A vital element of any season of AHS is humour, and so too 1984. Usually, the best laughs come from the earnestness of the characters, who are blissfully unaware of how ridiculous they sound. So, when Brooke meets Xavier, he tells her, dead-pan, "I trained with Stella Adler. I'm method". Later on, he discusses the dangers of being in a coma by referencing the song, "Coma Chameleon". After one of the characters is badly burned, an argument breaks out and when someone tells this character to breathe, they proclaim, "I have breathed the fire of a thousand white-hot suns". Discussing Billy Idol, a character points out to Ramirez, "You can't sing "Rebel Yell" and not be a rebel", a point he concedes as pretty reasonable.
Thematically, despite its campiness, 1984 does actually have some things to say. The most obvious issue is media commodification of serial killers. Whether it be by making a movie or putting their face on a magazine, serial killers and mass murderers sell, and there's something inherently wrong about that; why do we give serial killers cool nicknames and then endlessly engage with them in every way imaginable, thus giving them exactly what so many of them want - infamy. And, of course, it wouldn't be AHS without looking at gender issues. Here we see a critique of the notion that female victims of male serial killers are celebrated as "feminist heroes", as if they'd rather be an icon than be alive. There's also a nicely written reformulation of the serial killer trope whereby women are not believed as they fight male monsters.
In terms of problems, on the one hand, there is too much time spent on explaining things the audience already knows and hitting character beats we've already hit. On the other, there is a disorienting and not entirely successful time jump between the second to last and last episode, and it feels almost like there was an episode skipped between the two, especially insofar as the finale ill-advisedly introduces an entirely new character (this sense of truncation isn't helped that the season is only nine episodes - AHS's shortest yet). Some viewers will also undoubtedly find the humour too camp and too frequent, undermining the horror element, whilst some will find the plethora of references nothing more than pastiche, intertextuality for its own sake.
All in all, I thoroughly enjoyed this season of American Horror Story. It's not the most thrilling or unnerving, but it is the funniest and most self-reflexive. Strong characters, typically tremendous acting, and some genuinely heartfelt moments combine with great costumes, foolish hair, and a soundtrack of so-bad-they're-great songs to produce a season that might mean little to those born post-1989, but to the rest of us is an ode to the achingly familiar.
- Jul 22, 2020